‘You’ve got to check out Delray Beach,” said Bob, my cousin’s husband, who lives nearby in West Palm Beach and ought to know. And Bob was only the latest in a series of people who raved about the South Florida city’s hip transformation.
Delray rhymes with Cel-Ray, the iconic Dr. Brown soda I coveted at Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House Restaurant during 1980s visits to South Florida. For years, both town and beverage connoted, for me, a nostalgic aura of New York Jewish retirement kitsch.
But, as I’ve been chronicling during a month-long Passover sojourn, South Florida is noticeably younger than it used to be. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Delray Beach, which lies between Boca Raton and Palm Beach. With 3-year-old Zelda in tow, well past what used to be the “season,” I actually felt a little ancient amid the happy hour buzz.
On a humid Sunday in late April, you could have mistaken the beachfront crowds for spring break. Café tables were jam-packed with revelers whose average age looked about 30. Crowds were nearly as thick along Atlantic Avenue, the celebrated main drag and focus of Delray’s successful revitalization efforts.
Jewish deli is out (RIP, Wolfie’s, which closed a decade ago); swanky Italian, sushi and cocktails are in along this boisterous strip, where sidewalk seating takes advantage of the scene. Even the ice cream shops have outdoor tables. It’s all a bit much for my retired parents, for whom jostling with throngs for a table has lost any appeal it ever had.
But it’s a cosmopolitan success for Delray Beach, a venerable resort town that aspires to be the nightlife destination of staid Palm Beach County — and largely succeeds.
On any given evening, hundreds of people are out swilling wine, strolling with ice cream and lounging on the shady, palm-fringed plazas that punctuate Atlantic Avenue. Downtowns have been revived all along South Florida’s Gold Coast, but Delray Beach is currently the liveliest — with the best people-watching — north of Miami.
As I surveyed the street, I noticed the meticulous restoration of Delray’s vintage buildings: turquoise and yellow Art Deco classics, rectilinear midcentury moderns, Spanish-style haciendas in peach and pink. Each block evokes a different 20th-century decade, from the 1920s to the 1950s, and it all somehow feels modern as well.
Eating and drinking are the main event, but Atlantic has plenty more to do. Shoppers will find a plethora of boutiques selling everything from sundresses to stationery; cheery shop windows sport the pastel hues for which Palm Beach has long been famous.
About halfway down Atlantic, a pedestrian-friendly drawbridge over the Intracoastal Waterway led us to Veterans Park, where our attention was drawn to the Jewish war veterans’ memorial — Delray has long boasted a large Jewish community — and Zelda made a beeline for the turquoise-tiled mosaic fountain.
With a marine-themed children’s playground, a gazebo and a front-row seat onto the Intracoastal, the park is a downtown gem. We watched as sailboats, fishing boats and sumptuous yachts glided alongside the canal banks and disappeared under the bridge.
Delray was always known as an artsy town, and more than a dozen galleries and artisan workshops dot Atlantic and surrounding streets. On the first Friday of each month, Delray Beach hosts an Art Walk, with artist receptions and live music throughout downtown art spaces.
It’s just one of many events that make Delray feel like a perpetual block party. On Friday evenings throughout spring and summer, the city hosts free, open-air concerts at Old School Square Park, a green, landscaped plaza at the core of Delray’s arts district. (On Saturdays, the park also hosts a farmer’s market.)
Old School Square gets its name from the edifice at its center — the 1913 Delray Elementary School building, now restored as the Cornell Art Museum. With rotating exhibitions of contemporary, often Pop-style art, the museum is hit-or-miss for art lovers. But an airy, white-and-pine interior is a pleasant space to explore, as is the inviting veranda.
As its name suggests, however, this town is primarily about the beach. Delray occupies a particularly lovely stretch of coastline, and as we drove up Route A1A along the ocean, white sand and turquoise water shimmered in the Florida sunshine. The waterfront here is less manicured than elsewhere; in Delray Beach, Palm Beach’s pastel villas and 1960s resorts give way to wild tropical thickets.
As a silvery moon rose over the Atlantic, I knew we wouldn’t be among those late-night throngs on the boulevard. But in its current incarnation, Delray Beach has something for every age.